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Beauty has an address ~ Oman

May the forts be with you

Susan Hack
July 12, 2008
Man, Oman ... (left to right, from top) The fort at Nakhal, one of hundreds of forts in Oman; Muscat's corniche; a handful of frankincense, the gold of old; Muscat's old Mutrah market; a girl at the Muscat festival

With oil set for $200 a barrel and petrol $2 a litre, you might like to see how your money is being spent. Try Oman. Not the showy glitz of Dubai or the other shimmering Emirates up the road. Oman is agreeably low-rise and low-key.

Like the Gulf states to its north, Oman offers the usual "Arabian nights" stopovers: ride a camel, bash a dune and sleep under the stars in a six-star tent. There are camping and trekking, surfing and diving, and just idling around the pool at luxury resorts. But beyond all that, there's history; a rich past colouring a bright future.

You can't miss Oman. Head straight down the eastern side of the Arabian peninsula and it's the last stop before the Arabian Sea. The sultanate's story is at once exotic and familiar; the broad strands of Oman's trade and culture weave into the wider narrative that draws together the ancient world and the modern, the East and the West.

Oman's trade was once in frankincense, the wise man's Christmas gift of choice. Now it's oil and gas. But not as much oil and gas as its neighbours, so Oman is busy adding know-how to resources. The man who decides how the money is spent is His Majesty, Sultan Qaboos bin Said. My guide, Saif, tells me that health care is free, school is compulsory and university is not only free but students are paid to go.

In short, the urbane and cultured sultan is the kind of ruler who gives absolute monarchy a good name. His work is everywhere. At a lookout high in the Al Hajar mountains inland from the capital, Muscat, I know I'm supposed to be admiring that lush grove of date palms near that picturesque abandoned stone village but my gaze wanders to yet another new school and, beyond it, yet another new hospital. Of course, I am very susceptible, coming as I do from Morris Iemma's state, where promises of new this and new that have all the substance of desert mirages.

Oman's present is every bit as fascinating as its past, a nation refashioned in the less than four decades since the sultan deposed his backward-looking father, and set about rebuilding Oman from the sand up. The oft-quoted statistic is that Sultan Qaboos inherited just 10 kilometres of sealed road - Saif says he will show it to me - and now there are almost 9000 kilometres, including plenty of freeways (with, by the way, road signs in English as well as Arabic).

The nation seized by the sultan in 1970 was not just another arbitrary construct from that conference at Versailles after World War I - not just lines on a map. Oman has been a nation for centuries - indeed, in some sense, for millenniums - and for all that time has built forts and watchtowers to protect itself and guard its trade. Some forts date back to pre-Islamic times, others are more recent; some are no more than four walls, others are massive, with high towers and banks of battlements. All have an air of intrigue.

Secret hiding places lead to secret escape tunnels. Intruders were dropped to their deaths through secret trapdoors or met a truly sticky end, doused with vats of boiling date syrup. A windowless room at the fort in the former capital, Nizwa, was for spies to brief their masters without being overheard, while travelling merchants slept and chatted freely in a nearby guest room with no idea their every word was overheard through listening holes in the floor hidden by carpets.

Outside, in the Nizwa market, I am drawn to some dusty old water bags made of stomachs, but can't decide between the cow's and the camel's.

Despite the drama of their working lives, the forts are serene in retirement and very beautiful. High adobe walls are bleached to a pale terracotta in the intense noon sun and warm to a rich copper by late afternoon. Battlements command broad plains once crisscrossed by camel trails, with views over silver-green palm groves to distant mountains, mauve and grey in the sticky-thick dusty haze of summer. But you won't go in summer when the temperature is in the 40s, that's the high 40s. Unlike me, you'll be sensible and go when it's cooler and the skies are clear blue and the mountains sharp-edged.

The restoration of Oman's enormous legacy of forts and watchtowers is a work in progress; some 250 are done with about the same still to do. Many are already open to the public and the list grows by the year. Some, such as the fort at Nizwa, explain themselves well, while others, such as the imposing stronghold at Nakhal across the mountains near Muscat, have little to inform the traveller. So, best take a guide.

The forts have been built and rebuilt over the centuries, in a traditional adobe of mud mixed with crushed stones and palm fibre. The biggest is the magnificent fort at Bahla, not far west of Nizwa, built before the advent of Islam. Restoration of its World Heritage-listed walls and towers is still not finished, despite a decade of painstaking work.

Bahla towers 50 metres over the surrounding town, too high by Oman's current standards. Sultan Qaboos likes Oman's architecture low-rise and Arab in flavour. In the new suburbs, more is definitely Moor. More tiles, more columns, more arches and definitely more battlements. Everything comes with battlements, from the Grand Hyatt in Muscat to the white plastic water tanks on the roof of the humblest home.

"Aladdinland," I find myself thinking, as we roar through the 'burbs of Muscat heading 1000 kilometres south to the city of Salalah, in the Dhofar region, exchanging date palms and dust for coconut palms waving along wide surf beaches. In Salalah, high mountains stop just short of the green Arabian Sea. In the monsoon season - and this is the only part of Arabia washed by monsoons - the mountains, too, are green. Hawaii with camels. The travel brochures must write themselves.

We stay at Salalah's exquisitely groomed Crowne Plaza, where the lawns are not merely manicured but hot waxed and the frangipani wouldn't dare just drop their blossoms but arrange them neatly on the grass.

As long as 3000 years ago, spice traders hooked the wind and swung into the lagoon at Al Baleed, an ancient city being slowly uncovered along Salalah's beachfront. Girls on a school excursion to the site are as noisy as teenagers anywhere but modestly draw their veils as Saif and I catch up with them on the path to the adjoining museum, which in just a few galleries tells Oman's story in artefacts and audiovisuals. From dig to digital.

The Queen of Sheba shopped here - for frankincense to send to King Solomon. Frankincense is actually dried tree sap. Gold, tree sap and myrrh? Nah.

In the Salalah market, Muna might be an alchemist or a sorcerer, as her hand reaches out from her long black robe, or abyah, to dance along rows of glass jars with sparkling gold stoppers. Would she make me a perfume, the sort an Omani man might wear? Of course but Muna says it will be an everyday aroma, not one to make me irresistible to women.

Maybe that's why it is a surprising greeny black in colour. The little vial looks like essence of bitumen and is piquant in a rather industrial kind of way. Eau de Bloke, perhaps. The formula is lost in translation. Something from a whale, probably ambergris, but no one is sure, and something from India for which there is, apparently, no word in English, plus there's saffron and, alarmingly, something distilled from cabbage.

Powerfully aromatic, we head for the desert north-west of Salalah and the ruins of the lost city of Ubar, pinpointed not so long ago by an observant satellite.

It sounds wonderfully romantic. This may prove to be the place dubbed the "Atlantis of the Sands" by T. E. Lawrence, he of Arabia. It could be the fabulously rich and decadent trading city, which the Koran says was destroyed for its wickedness when God picked it up and turned it upside down in the sand. Certainly some cataclysm appears to have claimed Ubar, as the ruins have an enormous hole right in the middle.


Heading back the 170 kilometres to Salalah, half of it on dirt road, Saif is preparing to write a strong letter to the Ministry of Tourism, while from one of his eclectic music self-compilations, Kansas is playing Dust In The Wind.

Secret hiding places lead to secret escape tunnels. Intruders were dropped to their deaths through secret trapdoors or met a truly sticky end, doused with vats of boiling date syrup. A windowless room at the fort in the former capital, Nizwa, was for spies to brief their masters without being overheard, while travelling merchants slept and chatted freely in a nearby guest room with no idea their every word was overheard through listening holes in the floor hidden by carpets.

Outside, in the Nizwa market, I am drawn to some dusty old water bags made of stomachs, but can't decide between the cow's and the camel's.

Despite the drama of their working lives, the forts are serene in retirement and very beautiful. High adobe walls are bleached to a pale terracotta in the intense noon sun and warm to a rich copper by late afternoon. Battlements command broad plains once crisscrossed by camel trails, with views over silver-green palm groves to distant mountains, mauve and grey in the sticky-thick dusty haze of summer. But you won't go in summer when the temperature is in the 40s, that's the high 40s. Unlike me, you'll be sensible and go when it's cooler and the skies are clear blue and the mountains sharp-edged.

The restoration of Oman's enormous legacy of forts and watchtowers is a work in progress; some 250 are done with about the same still to do. Many are already open to the public and the list grows by the year. Some, such as the fort at Nizwa, explain themselves well, while others, such as the imposing stronghold at Nakhal across the mountains near Muscat, have little to inform the traveller. So, best take a guide.

The forts have been built and rebuilt over the centuries, in a traditional adobe of mud mixed with crushed stones and palm fibre. The biggest is the magnificent fort at Bahla, not far west of Nizwa, built before the advent of Islam. Restoration of its World Heritage-listed walls and towers is still not finished, despite a decade of painstaking work.

Bahla towers 50 metres over the surrounding town, too high by Oman's current standards. Sultan Qaboos likes Oman's architecture low-rise and Arab in flavour. In the new suburbs, more is definitely Moor. More tiles, more columns, more arches and definitely more battlements. Everything comes with battlements, from the Grand Hyatt in Muscat to the white plastic water tanks on the roof of the humblest home.

"Aladdinland," I find myself thinking, as we roar through the 'burbs of Muscat heading 1000 kilometres south to the city of Salalah, in the Dhofar region, exchanging date palms and dust for coconut palms waving along wide surf beaches. In Salalah, high mountains stop just short of the green Arabian Sea. In the monsoon season - and this is the only part of Arabia washed by monsoons - the mountains, too, are green. Hawaii with camels. The travel brochures must write themselves.

We stay at Salalah's exquisitely groomed Crowne Plaza, where the lawns are not merely manicured but hot waxed and the frangipani wouldn't dare just drop their blossoms but arrange them neatly on the grass.

As long as 3000 years ago, spice traders hooked the wind and swung into the lagoon at Al Baleed, an ancient city being slowly uncovered along Salalah's beachfront. Girls on a school excursion to the site are as noisy as teenagers anywhere but modestly draw their veils as Saif and I catch up with them on the path to the adjoining museum, which in just a few galleries tells Oman's story in artefacts and audiovisuals. From dig to digital.

The Queen of Sheba shopped here - for frankincense to send to King Solomon. Frankincense is actually dried tree sap. Gold, tree sap and myrrh? Nah.

In the Salalah market, Muna might be an alchemist or a sorcerer, as her hand reaches out from her long black robe, or abyah, to dance along rows of glass jars with sparkling gold stoppers. Would she make me a perfume, the sort an Omani man might wear? Of course but Muna says it will be an everyday aroma, not one to make me irresistible to women.

Maybe that's why it is a surprising greeny black in colour. The little vial looks like essence of bitumen and is piquant in a rather industrial kind of way. Eau de Bloke, perhaps. The formula is lost in translation. Something from a whale, probably ambergris, but no one is sure, and something from India for which there is, apparently, no word in English, plus there's saffron and, alarmingly, something distilled from cabbage.

Powerfully aromatic, we head for the desert north-west of Salalah and the ruins of the lost city of Ubar, pinpointed not so long ago by an observant satellite.

It sounds wonderfully romantic. This may prove to be the place dubbed the "Atlantis of the Sands" by T. E. Lawrence, he of Arabia. It could be the fabulously rich and decadent trading city, which the Koran says was destroyed for its wickedness when God picked it up and turned it upside down in the sand. Certainly some cataclysm appears to have claimed Ubar, as the ruins have an enormous hole right in the middle.

Sadly, the city's punishment continues to this day: rubbish skips around in the wind; there are only the most basic signs to interpret the ruins; and the "museum" consists of a few sad exhibits in a dingy little plywood shed. What a disappointment.

Heading back the 170 kilometres to Salalah, half of it on dirt road, Saif is preparing to write a strong letter to the Ministry of Tourism, while from one of his eclectic music self-compilations, Kansas is playing Dust In The Wind.

Getting there
Thai Airways flies to Muscat from Melbourne and Sydney for $1448, with an aircraft change in Bangkok. Etihad has a fare from Sydney for $1650 with an aircraft change in Abu Dhabi; Melbourne passengers pay $1925 and fly Qantas to Sydney. (Fares are low-season return and do not include tax.) Australian passport holders require a visa for a stay up to 30 days, which can be obtained in Australia for $42 or upon arrival for six Omani rials.